Associated Press
Children take notes during a lesson in a makeshift school Tuesday, June 16, 2009 in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

The United States Agency for International Development unveiled a new policy Thursday that aims to focus U.S. foreign aid resources on empowering the world's women and girls.

“We know that long-term, sustainable development will only be possible when women and men enjoy equal opportunity to rise to their potential," said USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah during a White House event Thursday. "With this policy, we can ensure our values and commitments are reflected in durable, meaningful results for all."

While USAID has addressed gender issues in the past, results have been mixed, according to a report released Thursday in conjunction with the policy launch. The agency's previous policy was issued in 1982.

Gender gaps in primary education have closed in a majority of countries since 2000, but in some places, like Afghanistan and the Central African Republic, fewer than 70 girls per 100 boys enroll in elementary grades. While more women have entered the workforce in developing countries, women are still more likely than men to engage in low-productivity and labor-intensive activities. In some counties the rate of sexual violence against women is close to 50 percent.

The new policy aims to direct USAID resources toward achieving three overarching goals:

Empowering women and girls to realize their rights, determine their life outcomes and influence decision-making in their communities.

Reducing gender disparities in access to and control of resources, wealth, opportunities and services.

Reducing gender-based violence and mitigating its harmful effects.

The Gender Equality and Female Empowerment policy is part of a broader initiative to clearly define USAID priorities. In February, the development agency also announced plans to measure gender equality in farming using a new "Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index."

"Identifying gaps in empowerment is especially useful for designing interventions that are appropriate in terms of context and culture," said Agnes Quisumbing, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, which is partnering with USAID on the project. "Knowing these gaps, policymakers will be in a better position to design and implement interventions to close the gaps."

There is growing recognition among the international aid community that focusing on women is one of the most effective ways to fight poverty. The United Nations has also made fighting for gender equality a major initiative. The UN Millennium Development Goals, which aim to end poverty by 2015, are heavily intertwined with women's rights.

“Promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment is not solely a plea for justice or for fulfilling human rights commitments. It is both of those things, but also so much more," said Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women when she announced six new initiatives in June.

Women could increase the yields of their farms by 20 to 30 percent if they had the same access to resources as men, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. That extra production could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent.

By addressing sexual violence and empowering women to take control of their reproductive health, a recent report from the UN Population Fund predicted developing countries could reduce maternal mortality by 70 percent. Supporting family planning could also result in gains in nutrition and income.

“Where we fail to capitalize on the potential and talents of one half of the population, we also squander the potential to reduce poverty, hunger, disease, environmental degradation and violence,” Bachelet said.